By Jon Gremmels Herald Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — FARMINGTON, Ill. — Rachael Beiermann wouldn’t mind it at all if the Fieldcrest volleyball team and its fans take one look at Fulton’s sub-.500 record and dismiss the Steamers as a serious super-sectional contender.
The Steamers enjoy the role of underdog, and they’ve become pretty good proving it.
“We definitely hope that,” Beiermann, a senior setter-hitter for the Steamers, said. “We like being the underdogs going into it because people don’t expect us, then when we pull it off we’re really proud of ourselves and it’s more motivation every time.”
Fulton continued its postseason run Thursday with a 25-19, 25-13 win against Abingdon-Avon to capture the Illinois Class 2A Farmington Sectional title. Now an Elite Eight team in the state, the Steamers (15-17-3) will take on Fieldcrest (32-4-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday in Manlius, Ill., for the Bureau Valley Super-Sectional championship. The winner will head to Redbird Arena in Normal, Ill., for the state semifinals at 1:30 p.m. next Friday.
“It was a goal of ours to get to it, but in the beginning of the season the way it was going, we never would have thought we would have made it this far,” Beiermann said, referring to a stretch in which the Steamers lost seven matches in a row and were 10 wins under the .500 mark. “Later, as the season went on, we could just see ourselves going farther, and now we have full confidence that we can go all the way. It’s going to be a long, hard, difficult ride, though.”
The Steamers wasted no time showing Abingdon-Avon that their record means nothing to them.
The Tornadoes (21-11) scored the first point of the match on a kill by Taylor Cudd, who led the team’s all-senior starting lineup with four kills. They lost serve on a violation for the next point, though, and didn’t get it back until Beiermann had staked the Steamers to an 8-1 lead at the service line.
“Building that momentum was awesome,” Beiermann said. “The fact that you’re sitting there and you get to keep serving, that’s just a good feeling. You don’t want to serve it out, and every time you serve it in, you just think, ‘Wow! We have another chance to get another point and keep this lead going.’ “
While Beiermann was serving up points, including an ace that made it 7-1, sophomore Betsy Leonard was dominating the middle of the net.
“Betsy was on tonight, and when you have a hitter that on, you just want to keep going to her,” said Beiermann, who led Fulton with nine assists. “There’s no reason not to unless they’re digging it up or blocking her, and they weren’t at first.”
Coach Stacy Germann said attacking the middle was Fulton’s plan.
“They single blocked in the middle, and we knew that,” she said. “We watched that (Tuesday, when Abingdon-Avon beat Stark County in the semifinals), talked to a couple of different coaches, and knew they single blocked. We practiced yesterday; we said, ‘Middles, it’s your night. Get it to our middles, do some A’s, B’s and C’s (attacks to different areas), and you guys should be able to have a pretty good night,’ and Rachael Beiermann did exactly that. She listened, and she got it to Betsy, and Betsy was doing well.”
Beiermann set up Leonard for a kill and a 2-1 lead, then Leonard and Jamie Huennekens combined on a block that made it 3-1. Leonard added kills for the next two points and, after Beiermann’s ace, added one more kill to cap the eight-point run.
“When they only single block middle, I know it opens up a lot more spots and I could do a lot more B’s and C’s and A’s, a lot more A’s,” said Leonard, who finished with a match-high eight kills.
“That (8-1 lead) helps a lot. It gets your momentum up, and you just want to keep the lead at all costs once you have that big of a lead.”
Despite the early sizable deficit, Tornadoes coach Cindy Paulus said her team stayed calm.
“We weren’t too in shock at that point,” she said, noting that her team had come back before.
Indeed, the Tornadoes did make things interesting, but not before Fulton further expanded its lead.
Each time Abingdon-Avon scored a point, the Steamers answered with two until the lead reached 14-4 when Beiermann put down an Abingdon-Avon overpass on serve-receive for a kill.
The Tornadoes crept back into the match after back-to-back aces by Chelsea Lesniewski pushed Fulton’s lead to 17-7. The teams traded service errors, then Abingdon-Avon scored three straight, capped by Sarah Redington’s ace. Another three-point run moments later pulled the Tornadoes within 19-14, and when they tacked on four straight after another Fulton point, the Tornadoes suddenly were within 20-18.
They got no closer, though.
After one more trade of points, Fulton scored three in a row to end it, using a Beiermann kill, a setting error by the Tornadoes and a violation to end the first game.
For a short time it appeared the second set would be the same as the first when Beiermann served four straight points to put Fulton in front 6-2. But this time, Abingdon-Avon didn’t let it get out of hand — at least yet.
Cudd served a pair of aces to pull the Tornadoes within 9-8. A kill by Ann Renkes stopped the momentum temporarily, but Abingdon-Avon responded with consecutive kills by Redington, Brittany Talbert and Becca Stipp to take an 11-10 lead, just its third lead of the night — 1-0 in Game 1 and 2-1 in Game 2 were the others.
“Our last sectional game ... we came from behind both games, so pressure doesn’t scare us,” Leonard said. “We don’t get too flustered when we’re behind.”
A service error tied the score and gave service back to Fulton. Then, as they did in the second game of a sweep of Orion on Tuesday, Lesniewski and Renkes pretty much finished off Abingdon-Avon’s hopes at the service line.
“I knew when Chelsea went back that we were going to get ahead again, and we did,” Renkes said. “Then, I just wanted to take it away at the end, finish it up for us. It’s a really good feeling knowing you could win it for your team.”
Lesniewski started a five-point service run with an ace that struck the top of the net and dropped to the court, and she added two more of her team-high five aces while she was at the line.
“It feels great,” she said. “I always want to get an ace. That’s what I go for. We learned that there was one passer who wasn’t too good, so she was our main target that we needed to go to when we were serving.”
When the Tornadoes got the serve back, they promptly returned the favor with a service error, putting Renkes on the line.
A ball-handling error increased Fulton’s lead to 18-12, then Renkes served three aces in a row.
“I just knew I had to get it down again,” Renkes said. “We knew they weren’t passing them up, so we just kept serving it at them.”
Fulton finished with 12 aces (24 percent of its points), but even when the Tornadoes were successful receiving serve, they had trouble transitioning into their offense.
“You always go out there and want to get your ace, but you know either way you’re aiming for a spot to where it’s going to be difficult for them to get their offense set up,” Beiermann said. “That’s really the main goal of serving, just to hit your spot. We were doing a pretty good job of that and trying to find their weakest point out there.
Once Lesniewski and Renkes were done serving — and the lead was 21-12 — the Steamers knew it was just a matter of time before they were celebrating the sectional title.
“(You get) very antsy,” Beiermann said. “With every point you just want it to end so you can just win already.”
It didn’t take long, either, and fittingly, Beiermann closed it out from the service line, serving another ace between two Abingdon-Avon hitting errors for the final three points.
FULTON 25-25, ABINGDON-AVON 19-13
Fulton statistical leaders
Kills — Betsy Leonard 8, Chelsea Lesniewski 2, Rachael Beiermann 2. Assists — Beiermann 9, Olivia Edfors 4. Digs — Averi Leitzen 7, Jamie Huennekens 6, Beiermann 4. Blocks — Leonard 2, Huennekens 2. Ace serves — Lesniewski 5, Ann Renkes 4, Beiermann 2.
More photos online To see more than 175 additional photos from Thursday's sectional championship, check out the online photo gallery at Clintonherald.smugmug.com